Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category:

On Games Journalism – What A Presskit Actually *Is*

So, quite recently, thanks to the “Games journos are all bribed” crowd and some games journos who drew attention to the arguments (Which are by no means new), I was reminded there was a hole in my “On Games Journalism” series (I mean, there’s a few holes, but I plug them as I go along.) Specifically, talking about Press Kits, what forms they take, and how a respectable games writer deals with them.


Speaks for itself, really.

So, let’s begin with the absolute basic form: The PR mail. Almost invariably, any mail trying to get you interested in a PR key is going to have basic info on what’s going on, sometimes with florid language, sometimes not. This one, for Endless Space 2 (already on my docket) is an about average example. Hey, this thing is going on, here’s a youtube link, interested in a key to review it?

If the answer is yes, and you are on the list of “Folks who’re approved for keys”, then you get a steam key. Y’know, a thing you’d need to review the game. So far, so very not bribe, because you are now pretty much committed to reviewing that product, regardless of its quality (or lack thereof), and not doing so will result in an unseen black mark against you. Enough of those, and you are, at best, greylisted (Your emails are not answered, leaving the question open as to whether you’re blacklisted, which is outright told “Nope, if you want to review our products, do it out of your own pocket.”) Yeah, sure, the game could be good, but if you knew it was good beforehand, then you’re a psychic. Many’s the time I thought something looked interesting and cool, and then… NOPE.

But anyway, that’s your most basic level. Then, you have the most common form of Press Kit: The information pack. Sometimes, these physically get mailed to you, with a page of A4, maybe a steelbox, or one of those many ubiquitous “USB keys shaped to look like a thing.” More often, they’re a ZIP file with some screenshots, an info PDF, and it’s usually filled with advertising blurb.

This is what an actual press kit looks like, 60% of the time. Another 20-25% of the time, it'll be the screenshots folder and logo.

This is what an actual press kit looks like, 60% of the time. Another 20-25% of the time, it’ll be the screenshots folder and logo.

If you think a USB Dongle shaped like a car key is a bribe, I really can’t help you. For an idea of what a PR fact sheet looks like, here’s the fact sheet for Colt Express, a game that isn’t on my docket, but I got a PR mail for.

Yes, I can see myself being bribed by this. No, re- Of course not really, it's info for convenience of access. :P

Yes, I can see myself being bribed by this. No, re- Of course not really, it’s info for convenience of access. 😛

This is the unromantic, very un-bribe like reality of 95% of press kits. This, ladies, gentlefolk, and folk of nonbinary genders, is all that most reviewers will ever see. So how do reviewers deal with them? Well, it depends how informative they are. A presskit like this will most often be ignored in favour of actually playing the game. Y’know, how a good reviewer will ignore the trailers, except as a point of reference, and instead write their review based on playing the game.

At this level, which is the level most people will encounter when games writing, there’s really not a lot of reaction or thought needed. So let’s talk about bigger press packages. Let’s try the Bloodborne press kit (Youtube link), shall w-

Oh. It’s basically a shinier factsheet with a silly CD case, a notebook, and a small artbook. Yay. These are decidedly uncommon, with only the bigger companies even bothering to send them out. And I’ll let you in on a little secret…

Most games writers who’ve been in the biz for more than six months are slightly embarassed by these things. I mean, that satchel thing’s vaguely useful, the artbook’s kinda nice, but that book CD case? Worse than useless. That notebook? Yeah, I [eyes A4 notepad and, y’know, his computer, which he is writing this from] don’t really see it seeing much use. Of course, there’s bigger tat out there, but, as much as I hate to piss on the poor sods who worked very hard to put on a show? It’s tat. Most of this gets thrown out, and you can tell a reputable games outlet by the fact that they don’t let you sell this stuff either.

So… Let’s kick it up a notch. Let’s talk about the kind of swag you will see handed out if you get a press pass to an expo or con. No, really, this shit’s handed out like god-damn candy. The reality of it is… Somewhat disappointing.

Actual "swag" I have received. T-Shirts. Postcards. Candy (Not pictured because candy, it's eaten already!) ...Guess how many of these things I even covered, let alone was nice about? (Answer: Not a fucking one)

Actual “swag” I have received. T-Shirts. Postcards. Candy (Not pictured because candy, it’s eaten already!)
…Guess how many of these things I even covered, let alone was nice about? (Answer: Not a fucking one)

This is the reality of it. You will get handed postcards. Small to medium, easily ripped bags. If they’re really splashing out, you will get T-Shirts. And nearly everything except the T-Shirts… Just look pretty. The T-Shirts are the most expensive part of this “Con swag”, and a T-Shirt… Comes to around £15. Which, you’ll notice, is below the absolute low end of what I consider “significant enough to declare.” It should also be worth noting that I got an Id T-shirt at the same expo, and you can already see how that came out (The bit about Rage.)

Y’know what I consider more important? These…

...THESE actually have a POINT.

…THESE actually have a POINT.

These are contact cards. Some of these people aren’t in the biz anymore. Some I’d have to rehunt the address for. But these are the real swag. Because the more of these you have, these small contact cards, the more your options open up for who to talk to. Not just developers, but lawyers who work with games stuff, reps for engine developers like Unity. Heck, somewhere in here is the card of the director of BAFTA Wales (Although I highly doubt they’d appreciate me mailing them out of the blue without a good reason.) That’s what’s important at these cons and expos.

But still, sometimes, once in a blue moon, you get big stuff. Being but a humble independent, I’ve never even seen one of these up close. Little statues. Sometimes not so little things. And the weird thing is, most of us are embarassed by this stuff too. Any reputable outlet doesn’t allow resale of such things… They are, again, of no practical use, and a lot of the time? They’re not as hot as people like to think they are. And again, they have no real effect on whether the game’s any good. A good writer is laser focused on the product, and honestly, most of us really wish big developers would save their money and spend it on, Oh, I don’t know, maybe paying the coders better and better coding conditions so we don’t have any of the frankly disastrous Day Ones we’ve had this past two years alone? Because I can say, from experience, that the smaller studios tend not to have those.

In the vast majority of cases, how to deal with Press Kits is, er… To focus on the game rather than the shinies. The vast majority of press kits aren’t useful for anything except quick reference and a lazy source of screenshots (Most games writers prefer to take their own), and the minority with swag are, quite honestly, embarassing, impractical, and our ethical options for them are 1) Throw them in the bin or 2) have them clutter up the bloody place. I can’t show you any of those “USB keys shaped like other things” because they’ve either gotten lost, or been thrown in the bin, or both. I definitely can’t show you any statues, or serious swag beyond T-Shirts (and damn few of them at that), because most folks don’t actually get that shit.

I leave you with a simple comment that spells out my opinion on “swag” , from my twitter feed.


EDIT: Another, calmer perspective comes from fellow games journalist Nick Cappozzoli, who points out that another, better way of looking at the situation would be to consider the “Tchotckes” (another nickname for this kind of thing) as inherently tainted… Since he’s worded it better than I, I’ll just let this speak for itself also.


On Games Journalism: Why Even Review A Bad Game?

So you might get the feeling, sometimes, that games reviewing is all about hyping up games. I certainly do, whenever I see some poor developer selected for the Hype Train (Making all stops to Consumerist Oblivion! Thanks to Katherine Cross for that one. ;D )

However, there are several reasons to review a game you either don’t know about, or have a distinct feeling, beforehand, is going to be bad. By the title, we are, obviously, concentrating on games that make you sigh gustily once you’ve realised what you’re in for.

Improving Your Craft

Yes, you can tell what’s good about a game. But all of a sudden, you’re having difficulty, because… You’re not enjoying whatever’s on your review docket, but you don’t know why. Sometimes, this is because you’re writing while depressed, or angry, or otherwise in less than tiptop critical shape (I’ve written about this before, when talking about the process of reviewing.) Other times, it’s because a game has something off about it, and you haven’t trained yourself to see it.

Sometimes, a game is bad because of something obvious, like conflicting art styles, bad UI, or a difficulty cliff that somehow manages to wing Icarus as it shoots on by. Sometimes, however, it’s more subtle. The pacing is off on the story (Something I now keep a hawk’s eye on.) A core mechanic is conflicting with another core mechanic (Example: If your game emphasises speed and agility, why’s all this armour here?) The sound design is dull (Not outright awful, just ho-hum or boring.) There’s a lot going on in a game, and even if you’re not necessarily going to write about it, it’s good practice to spot it. Repeated vehicles. Plodding game progression in an otherwise quickly paced game. Because, all too often, those little things can pile up to turn something okay… Into something thoroughly unenjoyable.

Also, it makes you appreciate the good more. I appreciate MoO2016 that little bit more because, hot damn, I’ve played some garbage 4X games in the past. And space games. It helps keep you critical, and honest. Similarly, you can never have enough learning. The more you understand of a particular genre, its history, its limitations, its follies and greatnesses, the better you can criticise it. This includes seeing what good there is in a bad game, because this is just as helpful as being able to understand why you’re wanting to play something, anything else.

Improving Their Craft

Two things can safely be assumed with developers, with a third being “Until proven otherwise.” That they are fellow human beings, and should be treated as such (A given.) That they want to make money from their craft (A given.) And finally, that they wish to improve their craft (Until proven otherwise.)

Written well, your critique is helpful. And your critique will get better if you understand why a game isn’t all it could be. Just as importantly, it’s important to know when something is definitely beyond a developer’s reach. Let’s take first person horror games, a genre that seems, at first glance, saturated with cash-in merchants, and treat it as if it were a genuine genre that deserves critique. Because, despite this perception, there are very few genres out there that don’t deserve critique.

Many first person horror games follow one of a few formulae. The two most common ones you see are your “You are alone in a creepy, seemingly endless place, collecting things”, and “You are alone, something strange begins happening, and SUDDENLY HORROR AND INVENTORY PUZZLES.”

Both of those formulae, done well, can be entertaining. No, really, they can! The main problem, though, is that making them entertaining, or even unsettling, requires an understanding of horror, as a genre, and how much it relies on two things: Pacing, and engaging the senses. While engaging the senses can be expensive in terms of sound design, visual design, modelling, and the like, it brings good returns to indie horror devs because nobody is laughing at whatever gribbley or Dark Force they’ve picked. This is a stumbling block surprisingly many folks don’t get… If you’re going to have a monster, take your time with it. It’s the real star of the show.

Pacing, in terms of equipment, is the least expensive of all. And, in terms of time? Research, and taking time to edit your own work. Does it add more assets? Not necessarily. Paranormal, by Matt Cohen, is at least okay despite its flaws and slow dev time, starting relatively normal (A lonely house that people claim is haunted), then building up over time, from things moving when you’re not looking, to being shoved back from some stairs, to fire and death. It’s by no means a great game, but it understands that you don’t need to show anything immediately. Similarly, Oxenfree, while not a first person horror, starts with utter normality, wrenches you suddenly into weirdness, and then sustains the pace. Of course, it’s very difficult to describe good pacing, because it’s very much an art, not a science. I didn’t think Oxenfree could keep creeping me out… But it does, and at least part of that is the moments of relative normality. That’s right, sometimes dialling it back, even for a short while, can benefit your horror game. Who’d have thought it, huh? If I wanted to use a first person example, look no further than The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The pacing is pretty damn good most of the way through on that one, and it engages the senses wonderfully.

Meanwhile, I took a break from playing Joana’s Life about five or ten minutes in, firstly because the monster gets revealed, just a few minutes after oh noes creepy small child laugh from nowhere and oh noes the lights have gone out… So, pretty damn predictable, and I was pretty much waiting for something truly scary at that point (Needless to say, I wasn’t terribly impressed at that point) , but secondly, because the game had items that I knew I would need (Front door keys that inexplicably won’t work the first time round. A flashlight because yes, the power’s going to go out, of course it will. Little things) , and then kept too tight a rein on its story by not letting me deal with these things until I’d touched the broken mirror that kickstarts all the horror and please, can I play a protagonist that’s not a bloody fool who’s going to do the obviously bad thing? While lack of control over the situation is a common theme in horror, lack of control in a game is something to be handled carefully, lest you irritate the player unduly.

Understanding what makes something badly designed can help a developer who hasn’t learned these things that yes, this is where they might do better. Everything mentioned here is potentially helpful to someone who wants to make an indie horror game.

There Are, Obviously, Limits

This does need to be said. Sometimes, a developer really is a shovelware merchant, cynically trying to cash in on some internet meme, or monetisation method. And many of them use exactly the same methods, much like the fifty or so spam emails I have about Search Engine Optimisation and Brand Marketing in my inboxes today. Thankfully, much like those spam emails, many of these are obvious, and you don’t need a whole lot of critical training to spot one from its video footage. Do yourself a favour, and limit your exposure to these. Examine them a few times, by all means. But once you’ve spotted the tricks of the trade (Asset Flipping, largely empty worlds, obvious signs of bad world modelling, and the like), stop. You’re only going to make yourself angry and depressed.

Similarly, if you find yourself getting angry and depressed about a game with a good idea, but some godawful or tedious execution, stop. Take a break. This is the point at which you have understood that the game is bad, and it’s time to think about why. Don’t go back until you’re calm again, don’t go back once you’ve understood, don’t go back unless you want to examine things further. Yes, you’re learning, but pace yourself. Learn what you can, then move on. Yes, if you’re reading this, you’re interested in games writing, which involves a lot more reviewing bad things than you’d at first think. But you’re not going to be writing well from a place of ennui and frustration.

Improving your critique is no different from improving any other art form. Knowing where the mistakes lie is useful. So please don’t disregard them. But also, please don’t disregard your health. Hope this helps prospective writers some.


How Not To Be An Asshole About A Video Game

So, as it turns out, No Man’s Sky was not the Second Coming. To a reviewer, this is no big surprise. To players, however, it seems to have been, to the point where death threats have been sent to the feller who reported that the game was being delayed for two months, to the developers when they confirmed it, to the developers when the game came out and it didn’t meet some really heavy expectations, to, oddly, anyone who criticises the game.

Thing is, it’s relatively easy not to be a death threat spewing asshole because a game disappointed you. Here’s a few handy tips, from most obvious to least.

This Doesn’t Apply To Everybody Reading This

This, like the thing below, shouldn’t have to be said. But there’s often that worried little voice “But what if he’s talking about meeeee?”

Okay, here’s your checklist. You don’t fill this criteria, it’s not about you. Good on you:

  • You bought a game without trying to find out if it’s for you.
  • You got angry about this, possibly enough to send death threats to somebody, definitely enough to rant about it somewhere.
  • You even possibly thought that would make the game better.
  • (Side possibility: You bought the game and are angrily shouting at everyone who thinks it’s not for them.)

Death Threats Are A Crime. A Video Game Is Not Worth Committing A Crime.

This really shouldn’t have to be said. But, somehow, it does. Again. And again. And again. And again. If you’re getting angry… About a video game… Enough to send people death threats… Then some serious anger management is needed. This is true even if other things about this NMS debacle weren’t also true. It also doesn’t magically make the game better. Often, what it ends up doing is needlessly harming or pissing someone off, you end up on a blocklist (And, occasionally, a watchlist), and you then don’t get to give feedback on it anymore because you’ve proven that you can’t criticise effectively or usefully. All you’ve shown is that you get angry about things.

What Was Actually Promised?

This is a very important one, folks, and too many people out there forget this one. No Man’s Sky promised exploration (Yup), Procgen planets and creatures and languages (Yup), resource gathering (Yup), and flying through space between planets (Yup.) It did not promise a romance plot. It didn’t promise a massive variety of guns. It didn’t promise 4X elements.

If you expect things that were never promised, you’re pretty much setting yourself up for heartbreak, and have nobody to blame but yourself. If you believed the rumour mill over official sources, you have nobody to blame but yourself. If you didn’t even look at said official sources before putting down your money, you really have no-one to blame but yourself.

Another thing that often happens is someone says a thing, and it’s misconstrued to be another thing, or expectations are built on only a few words. “Spiritual Successor” is a good one, because that’s actually pretty damn ambiguous. What it actually means is “We were inspired by this thing to make another thing that takes elements from that thing.” It doesn’t mean “We are remaking the thing” or “We are making a thing that’s exactly like the thing”, because, very often, the thing it’s a “Spiritual Successor” to had design elements that maybe wouldn’t work so well in the modern day, or are patented, or don’t fit with the other things that the developer is doing in their game.

I Paid Money For This, You Know?

Yes, you did. Of your own free will. I’ve yet to hear of a case where someone was actually forced to buy a game, especially not by the developers. If you didn’t research before buying a thing, then it’s not the thing-maker’s fault you bought the wrong thing. An example using everyday stuff: The words “May contain nuts” are there for a reason. Because there are people out there who can die if they eat nuts. It is not the maker’s fault that their thing contains nuts if it says, right there, “May contain nuts.” It is also not their fault if you wanted nuts, and it did not say it had them.

This ties into, for obvious reasons, doing your research. You bought a game without knowing what it is? There’s no nice way to say it, you’re an idiot. There’s YouTube Let’s Players who leap on the game from release, there’s lots of reviews that get published, there’s all those trailers they put out and articles and things, and the developers aren’t even going to know that you waited for a day or two while seeing if the game was what you wanted to pay money for.

“But I don’t want SPOILERS!” is, at least, a semi-valid concern. I say semi-valid because while there is no foolproof way of avoiding spoilers for a game, there are ways to mitigate that risk. I’ve known Let’s Players spoil the ending of a game… At the beginning. But most of them, funnily enough, don’t, especially if they’ve come in blind. Gameplay trailers and streams from the developers are often kept as spoiler free as possible. There’s two possibilities, right there, for seeing what the first hour or so of a game is like. And if it’s not for you, it’s not for you… Leading us nicely to…

Guess What? People Are Different

This one is low on the list, not because it’s not obvious (Look at my photo, then look at you. Odds are pretty high we don’t look all that much alike, even superficially), but because it’s a sort of side case. People sometimes get it into their heads that if other people don’t like a thing that they like, or, HORROR, like a thing they don’t, they are automatically the Spawn of Satan. Sometimes, the people who like the thing or don’t like the thing haven’t done their research.

That’s on them. You see somebody who hasn’t done their research, point them to one of the many articles by reviewers and critics who’ve been pointing out for the last god-knows that if you buy a thing without research or critical thought, you’ve made a boo-boo (Not necessarily the thought of critics, just thinking critically yourself.) It doesn’t even have to be mine.

However, the core thing here is that people like different things. Good example: I severely dislike HOPAs. I disagree with at least one fellow critic that they write women better. I find their lack of thought about things like colour blindness, or placing puzzles in a manner that makes even the vaguest amount of sense to be repellent. And I have played and reviewed enough of them that I feel this opinion is a considered one.

Funnily enough, though, they still sell well. They still get praised in certain circles. They still get played. And this is because they’re not, the majority of the time, targeted toward me, or folks like me. Many of the people I’ve talked to who play HOPAs and enjoy them give not the slightest fuck about the story beats, or the placement of the puzzles, or the colour blindness thing, and the best of them actually work quite well in a language teaching context.

Okay, people don’t like the game you bought. It’s not going to kill the developer, or crash the games industry that they don’t like the thing you bought. Just like it’s not going to make the game you liked magically vanish because somebody else didn’t.

Now that we’ve got this over with, some nice, easy ways to properly give feedback about a game.

Giving Good Feedback

Write from a place of calm. If you’re writing angry, you’re writing when you’re not thinking clearly. And, funnily enough, people have a tendency to listen more if you are polite about things than if you’re ranting and raving.

When talking about a feature, try and make sure you understand the feature first. If you don’t, that, in and of itself, is potentially valuable feedback. But if you do not understand the feature, that’s going to affect how useful your feedback is, usually negatively.

Be clear. “This isn’t like X other game” is not useful feedback. Especially since, surprise surprise, this isn’t X other game. One useful criticism I heard for No Man’s Sky is that the resource management and collection aspects interfere with the exploration aspect of the game, in that it limits where you are likely to go, and how far you are likely to go. That’s a conflict. An example of a piece of criticism that isn’t useful is “It doesn’t have a rocket launcher.” That’s not useful because hey, guess what: This isn’t that sort of game.

If you would like to see a new feature, do not dictate, suggest. And don’t be all too surprised or disappointed if said suggestion is not taken. A good example of this would be multiplayer in NMS. Yes, it seems simple to you. But as anyone who has even dabbled with netcode could tell you, it isn’t. You’re very possibly thinking in terms of how “simple” the data is that needs to be transmitted. What you’re very possibly forgetting is that those supposedly small numbers (Which aren’t as small as you think they are if you don’t want fun things happening like other players appearing inside animals that are on your end and not theirs) add up. And have to be processed. As close to realtime as possible. Things you may think are simple to add, or beneficial, may not actually be in context, or with a greater understanding of how the game is coded. And, most importantly, you are not the developer or the publisher. It’s important to remember that when giving feedback.

Most of all, remember what is fact, and what is opinion. Fact: No Man’s Sky crashes on start up for me, and it gives this error message. Okay, that, along with diagnostic information, may help the developer work out why it’s crashing at start up, and perhaps be able to reduce the amount of crashes on start up (Providing they can reproduce that.) Opinion: This game sucks, go fuck yourself. That’s not even a useful opinion, because there’s no information the developer can work with, nothing that invites discussion, just… Noise. Opinion: This game sucks because it doesn’t have loads of guns. More useful, because it’s at least giving a reason, but where did you get the impression it was a shootmans game, as opposed to an exploration game?

Okay, let’s try a useful opinion: I feel that the limited inventory slots of the early game hampers the pacing of my experience, because I end up wasting a lot of time on inventory management rather than, for example, crafting or exploring or learning alien languages. That’s still not going to guarantee any changes, but it gives a reason for dissatisfaction, it’s not insulting, and it shows the developer where part of their audience is getting their enjoyment. It’s not going to fix any bugs. It’s still an opinion. But it’s a lot more productive than that first opinion.

To give some idea of how many times I’ve tried to say this in one form or another, here’s some further reading on the site:

When Is It Okay To Harass About Framerate? (HINT: NEVER)
On Fandom, Early Access, and Backseat Developers
On Games Journalism: We Are *All* Only Human

On Game Design: Optional? (SPOILERS)

We’ve all seen games where there is “optional content that adds to the story.” Similarly, there are games where playing again introduces new things. But there are times when the execution of these features can harm perception of a game. For this mini-essay, I’m going to be picking on two games: Arkham Knight, and Zero Time Dilemma. In both cases, I’m going to be presenting a before and after seeing this. On the Arkham Knight front, we’re dealing with “optional content” , and for Zero Time Dilemma, it’s a second playthrough thing. Let’s start with that.

Zero Time Dilemma: Before

Omigod, how annoyed I was when Delta got revealed. “It was me all along, the pretend deaf, blind man in a wheelchair I don’t need, who’s been watching you and controlling your every move! All for the best of motives, of course, and all this pain and suffering you’ve personally experienced? Means jack shit because I, personally, didn’t do anything. It was all those other Deltas in other timelines!”

This man lies at the root of both the story... And the problems.

This man lies at the root of both the story… And the problems.

I was all ready for a rant about ableist writing. I was all ready for talking about how the reveal was poorly foreshadowed. Here, we have a deaf and blind man who’s ignored, who you have no clue about his existence before a certain scene involving twins being copy-pasted through time-space, and then it turns out it was all a cheap trick. Even when we get to the “After”, Delta is an asshole. But this rant? Technically unjustified.

Zero Time Dilemma: After


As a side note, the sound design in this scene is extremely gruesome. Kudos.

Because then I looked up signs for Delta’s existence. Oh, they’re there alright. But many of them are super ambiguous, and only a few am I kicking myself for missing (The Q-Team death shower, for example, has three puddles of flesh. Except Sean is a robot, and doesn’t have flesh. Then again, there’s no wires or electronics either.) Shadows on the camera that are actually Q/Delta/Zero and his wheelchair. That one scene where Sean and Eric look like they’re talking to the dog (via a cut between Eric and the dog, Gab), but are actually talking to Q/Delta.

There’s just one problem. A lot of these require a second playthrough, or even a third, if you’re even halfway good at Zero Escape games. I finished the game in one solid block, one night, all achievements. And that hurt my perception of this particular plot point, because, with ZTD, there are no other outcomes. It is a Visual Novel in the purest sense because you get all the Bad Ends along the way, and there is one, True End. So, for many, the question would be “Why go back?”

He's not looking *down* . There's your clue.

He’s not looking *down* . There’s your clue.

There’s your answer. You sort of have to to properly understand how you’ve been led by the nose. And there’s no incentive to when you think you’ve had a Not Twist pulled on you. It wasn’t. It’s just a lot of the foreshadowing was ambiguous enough that you thought it was.

Of course, it doesn’t stop Delta being an asshole, in any of the timelines he’s in. He’s not a hero for what he does. He’s not an antihero for what he does. He’s a villain who, in his world (and only in his world), technically won. We’ll leave aside the question of “Well, how the hell does Delta exist in all those timelines when he was only born in one and copied to one other?” , because the narrative does leave room for saying he was copied to a lot of timelines, not all of which we’d see.

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it's *perfectly fine*

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it’s *perfectly fine*

So what about Arkham Knight?

Arkham Knight: Before

Ohhh boy. Arkham Knight kicked up one hell of a stink, not only for its shoddy PC port, but for its treatment of women characters in the games. Of particular note would be Barbara Gordon, whose suicide raised many an angry cry of “FRIDGE FRIDGE FRIDGE!” , and, in the DLC, Francine Langstrom, wife of the man who would become ManBat, who is just… Dead. Before the story even begins. Now, for those who don’t get what the cry of “FRIDGE!” means, it refers to a somewhat sexist piece of comics writing called “Women in Refrigerators”, where the death of a woman character is used purely to motivate the hero or otherwise affect him. If you guessed that the original, trope naming example was of a woman being hacked up and placed in a hero’s refrigerator, you’d win an imaginary cookie.

Yeaaaah... Not lookin' good...

Yeaaaah… Not lookin’ good…

It’s not the only example of writing perceived as shoddy in Arkham Knight, and not the only shitty character treatment. Poison Ivy, despite being a Chekhov’s Immune Person, spends most of the game in jail. She doesn’t, to my knowledge, plead with Batman to be let out, and, until a pivotal scene, she doesn’t mention how her plants, the supposed core of her character, will also die if Scarecrow releases his fear toxin. After this pivotal scene, she sacrifices herself for Gotham. These treatments were bad enough that even male writers, such as myself, Evan Narcisse (Kotaku) , and Elijah Beahm (Gameskinny) noticed.

Of course, things could get missed. And they do. But does it make it any better?

Arkham Knight: After

In the case of Barbara Gordon, the words “It gets better later!” have been used often, in one form or another. Barbara didn’t really die, it was a Fear Toxin hallucination. She saves her dad, Batman, and distracts Scarecrow, throwing herself off a building because she knows the Bat will save her. She helps in one of the final fights, hacking an army of drones.

"It gets better."

“It gets better.”

But, as AnnotatedDC (Among many others) points out, this doesn’t change the fact that she spends the majority of the game either a captive (Damselled) or with Batman and Gordon both being manipulated into distrusting each other, leading to this “It gets better later!”, by said fake suicide, which, sorry to say, “Gets Better” crowd, still makes it a Fridging. Similarly, Francine Langstrom, if you go back to the Langstrom lab after doing the Manbat quest, has vanished, leaving a message behind in blood that deeply implies she has become a (Wo)ManBat also. Batman is still emotionally affected into doing the thing. Batman still does the thing. And, to make things even more fun, this is an example of something you most likely will miss, because you’re given no reason to go back there that I’m aware of.

Oh, and Poison Ivy may not have actually died, because there’s a plant where she fell. That one you at least have a chance of spotting without knowing that it’s there… But it’s extremely ambiguous whether that’s a good sign, or a monument to the sacrifice that, unfortunately, doesn’t make the writing of that arc any better. Nor does it make her design in Arkham Knight any less sexualised. People have seriously said to me that the design in Arkham Knight is less sexualised than The Animated Series. Here’s the two side by side for comparison. One of them is slightly better.

One is a Victoria's Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let's not forget the crossbow.

One is a Victoria’s Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let’s not forget the crossbow.

Catwoman, who you may have noticed wasn’t talked about until now, does, genuinely, get somewhat better. She’s freed somewhere around the halfway point, and, providing you get all the Riddler Trophies, gets her own back on Mr. Edward Nygma. Of course, you only get the “freed” part unless you do get all the Riddler Trophies (And not even that until you do a certain proportion), and, while the trophies are easier to get, and in smaller numbers than Origins, it’s still a collectathon task that not every Arkham Knight player has done.

So, Arkham Knight: Not quite as badly written as folks say, does have its high points… But still not great.

It’s important, when designing a game, to be aware that tying your story to optional content, or a second playthrough, may not necessarily be a good thing, because if it’s something important to that story, like Dr. Mrs. Langstrom not actually being dead, then perception of your game can become somewhat negative.

Let’s Talk “Tough”

Okay, so this past month has seen, seemingly, the unwelcome return of “Oh, but this is challenging!” to the Mad Welshman’s hearing. And I’m getting rather sick of the phrase, because it often disguises just plain bad design. So let’s talk about some common pitfalls here.

It Gets Better Much Later!

"It's okay, it'll get better later!" "Well, that's a shame, because it's dull, repetitive, and shitty *right* now, and I'm tired."

“It’s okay, it’ll get better later!”
“Well, that’s a shame, because it’s dull, repetitive, and shitty *right* now, and I’m tired.”

This is what we, in the criticising/design end of things, like to call a “Difficulty curve problem” or an “Interest curve problem.” If you are having to tell me that the game gets better later to keep me playing now, then something has gone wrong. And usually, it’s not understanding what makes a challenging fight challenging, or an area/encounter interesting.

A challenging encounter is one where you are given time to understand the rules of engagement, but will still get your shit wrecked if you don’t have the skill. The Asylum Demon from Dark Souls is a good example of this, as you can run away quite effectively for some time (In fact, the fight is optional the first time through.) He swings. He butt stomps. He telegraphs. That last bit is important. Equally important, even though it doesn’t seem it, is that you know what effect you’re having.

An uncomfortable encounter would be one where there are wrinkles that you would be unaware of until the fight is underway, causing problems down the line. A good example of this would be from the Persona series, where a specific encounter, Nyx/Night Queen, will charm your healer, who then… Heals said encounter up to full health. Because it’s relatively pattern based, it can be planned for and countered, but it’s an unpleasant surprise that can lead to a slow death and frustration the first time round. Hope you saved!

A bad encounter is one where nothing is telegraphed, or there’s something for which you have no counter beyond memorisation and/or flawless execution. An example of this would be Mind Flayers from the original Eye of the Beholder, whose awesome powers are represented by… An invisible ranged attack that can cause an all party paralyse, aka “Might as well be a game over.” Not even a late game enemy needs something like this.

Interest, unfortunately, is much harder to gauge. Even an engagingly written Wall-O-Text(TM) is going to turn some people off, whereas a five minute cutscene might have people sitting on the edge of their seats. But there are some things that aren’t recommended, and I’ll go into some of them a little further on.

The Last Place You’ll Look

Pictured: Literally the Heat Suit in the Lava Place.

Pictured: Literally the Heat Suit in the Lava Place.

This one can especially be a problem for exploration games, like Metroidvanias, but some people just don’t get that many players will do anything, anything rather than look somewhere they’ve been discouraged to. This is one where I’m not going to name names, but give a possibility, to show you what sort of things you really want to avoid.

The first, and best, would be the Heat Suit in the Lava Place. Okay, so on the one hand, props for thematic placement… But I’m not talking about the edge of such a place. Oh, no. We’re talking at the edges of your health requirements. We’re talking a case of “If you have X health powerups, and pass the obstacles along the way well (or flawlessly) while taking the damage over time from over heat, you’ll be able to get the Heat Suit, which stops that damage over time effect.” A perfect example of this was provided by one of my twitter followers, where, in La Mulana, the Ice Cape (Which reduces lava damage) is at the end of the Inferno Cavern (Which not only has lava, but fireballs that will often knock you into the lava.)

Don’t do this. Don’t ever do this. First off, what the heck is it doing all the way there? How did the normal schmoes get it, before everything went to hell? How did it get there? How will anybody know? And this applies to a lot of things, because players can be easily discouraged. Let’s say there’s something that jams your minimap. Let’s say knowing where you are is kind of important. Players won’t want to explore that jammed area until they know how to deal with it. If the thing you need to deal with it is in that area, then congratulations, you have basically created an old-school game maze, a piece of artificial padding that’s been despised since… Well, a long damn time.

While we’re on the subject…

The Maze. Because.

Welcome to the Brain Maze. This is something like what you'll be seeing for the next half hour. Enjoy!

Welcome to the Brain Maze. This is something like what you’ll be seeing for the next half hour. Enjoy!

That “Because” is kind of important. Putting a maze in your level design for no good reason is going to annoy people. Especially if it’s a teleporter maze, where there’s no frame of reference. Especially if you can’t leave some sort of breadcrumb trail. Especially if you can’t pick those “breadcrumbs” back up again, and need them.

Realms of the Haunting, for all that it had a strong, interesting early game, suffers really badly from this in the latter half. At least two hedge mazes, at least two cave mazes, and a couple of maze puzzles. That game suffered because of that. Yours doesn’t have to. Yes, there have been clever mazes (And clever pseudo-mazes.) That doesn’t change the fact that often, it’s a lazy puzzle.

The Random Chance of Instant Death

This one mostly applies to RPGs, but there’s an analogue in some strategy games. Essentially, sometimes, monsters in games have a random chance, if they hit you, of straight up killing you. Often, this goes along with random encounters, or scripted, yet invisible encounters. So you walk into a fight and… Oh, bad luck, hope you saved before that fight!

Yeah, nobody’s going to ever claim that was fair. Or much of a challenge on either side. Either the insta-death doesn’t proc, and the monster wastes its life trying to kill you, or it does, and you’ve got nothing left but to reload an earlier save. I could point to an absolute multitude of early RPGs that do this, including… Er… Most of the CRPGs of the 80s and 90s.

Thing is, this applies to pretty much any game where you can be dicked out of a victory by nothing more than chance. Need to roll seventeen sixes on 20 d6 to win a game? That’s bad. On a related note, you have the…

Gotcha PowerUp

Oh, that extra life looks really tempting, doesn’t it? Shame that if you try and get it, you’re going to die. Well, chalk that up to learning a lesson abo- What, you thought you didn’t have to go through that tough segment it’s at the end of again? Ahaha no. Go directly to checkpoint, do not pass go, and do not collect your extra life. To make it worse, sometimes it’s not an extra life. Sometimes, it’s not even a real power up. When you just can’t reach it, ever, that’s lacklustre design. When you can, but can’t get anywhere without dying? You’ve been Gotcha’d, and it’s bad design.

Gotcha Enemies/FUCKING BATS/Gotcha Spikes

Fucking. Bats. There are four conveyor belts like this. Not pictured are tanky turrets too.

Fucking. Bats. There are four conveyor belts like this. Not pictured are tanky turrets too.

There is a reason Castlevania bats have mostly gone out of fashion… Because everybody knows they’re difficulty padding. For those who don’t know why bats (or birds, or spiders, or medusa heads) are considered such a bane, let’s consider a jump. If you are skilled, you will make that jump. Okay, that’s fair.

Now add knockback on a hit from an enemy or obstacle. Put that enemy in the middle, and make sure it dies in one hit. Okay, now it’s challenging, because there’s a timing element too.

Now replace that enemy you know with bats. There is never one bat. They either move toward some point on you (Often below or above your weapon’s hitbox), or they move in a predetermined fashion across the screen from a random point. Congratulations, you’ve just gotten pissed off at the fifth time you’ve been knocked into that pit, and very possibly died.

Another variant of this is the Gotcha Enemy, the one that is either on your target platform in an obstacle course, or appears just as you’re about to land. Unlike the other examples, it can’t be killed in one hit. So you’re going to get knocked back unless you have some other resource to deal with it… You know, into that pit. Which kills you.

But let’s say it doesn’t kill you. This gives us an example of the Gotcha spikes! You fall, and, holy of holies, there’s a platform, you’re not going to die!

Except you are, because you can’t control your movement while being knocked back, and you need to go right, not left to land on it. Everywhere else is spikes. For extra dickmovery, let’s imagine that platform is actually where you need to go to complete the level.

You’d think this was me making things up. But no, these are things that have happened in older games before. Mostly in the Mega Man and Castlevania series, both of which are well known for their equivalents of FUCKING BATS (Which, in Castlevania’s case, is where the term came from.)

Read My Mind.

This one is particularly bad with adventure games and RPGs, because it’s long been accepted that both genres can have puzzles, and maybe should have puzzles… But the art of designing a puzzle is a tricky one, because not only do you have to know the solution before you write it, you have to think really hard about whether you would, in the situation your character is in, arrive at that solution too. We even have a name for it, based on a game by Jane Jensen (Who normally writes much better puzzles, to be perfectly fair): Cat Hair Moustache. Of course, this includes a multitude of sins, including bad signposting, bad logic, and lack of clarity.

Gobliiins, by Coktelvision, has entertaining animations, endearing characters, and only got better with the addition of music and cheesy VA. However, it suffered from all three of these problems, and it was only made worse by a health bar system that would lose you the game if you screwed up enough. Hey, maybe punching/magicking/using this thing would he- Oh, wait, no, it dropped our health bar because it was secretly full of snakes/spiders/a possibly undead gribbley. One of those things, by the way, was an integral part of a puzzle, but if not handled in exactly the correct way, would give you a game over quite quickly.

Some of the hidden rules behind Gobliiins you learn quite quickly (Never ask Dwayne to use a stick shaped object on anything but the thing he’s meant to, or he will bash himself on the head.) Others, you can never be certain of.

And so it becomes a game of trial and error, because there is only one solution (Sometimes two), and sometimes, it involves moon logic (Such as opening a cupboard by throwing a dart at a picture of its owner) or just guessing which one is right (Which apples are safe to make big and carry to fill a gap in a bridge?)

I’m Not Going To Tell You

Sometimes, you don’t actually have the information you need to make a solid decision. This one comes in several varieties, but the core question in each of them is “Should I, as my character, know what I don’t know?” If the answer is “Yes”, then you have correctly identified the game padding its difficulty. Unfortunately, part of the problem here is that, a lot of the time, you don’t know it’s there to be important. For example, ally kills in Disgaea bar you from the best ending, but the criteria for it? It’s somewhat picky.

Now, I want to be completely fair here, and mention that, in one particular case, it’s because of factors outside the developer’s control. Specifically, copyrighting of sanity meters. That’s right, that whole “Your vision gets fucked up when looking at a creepy thing” comes from designers having to get around paying extra money because they can’t give you a number to tell you how scared you are.

Checkpoint: Failed

Not actually a *terrible* example of what I'm talking about. But there's lots of them out there, even today.

Not actually a *terrible* example of what I’m talking about. But there’s lots of them out there, even today.

Hoo boy. This is a really common one. From the multi-stage boss without a checkpoint, to the one button runners without a checkpoint, ignoring checkpoints if your game is already challenging (or just plain difficult) takes it to a whole other level of fuck you. Let’s take the one button runner example. There is a game, that I will not name, which has a cool soundtrack, some great customisation, acknowledges that colour blindness is a thing, and has some cool set pieces within its limited repertoire. But none of this is very useful, because, since not a single level has checkpoints. In game, I’m hearing the same thirty seconds to a minute (On a particularly bad day, 15 seconds) over and over again, I’m not seeing most of the set pieces, and due to this, I have a playtime of… An hour, gained in ten minute dribs and drabs once in a blue moon, since I bought it two months ago. I have beaten two levels. Is it because I’m bad at the game? No, it’s because a one-button runner is already a challenging genre, and having not a single checkpoint in a five to ten minute level requiring quick input and pattern memorisation pushes it from “Challenging” to “No, fuck you.”

Things To Keep In Mind

A clever designer can make these things not seem so bad. Well, most of them. Hidden stats, for example, are pretty much “flavour” in many racing games, and you don’t need to know the hidden stats to play Pokemon. Sometimes, they’re limitations. But they can nearly all be taken out of your game, if you make one, with just a little forethought.

Ask questions as you design.

Ask folks to test your game, and watch folks playing your game. They will surprise you.

Look at older games, and learn from their mistakes.

Don’t blame me for any complaints if you don’t.